A guide to eating cheap in the United Kingdom
Food in the United Kingdom always gets a bad rap from travelers. Ok, so it isn’t the fanciest cuisine in the world, but it’s not the worst either. For one thing, you are unlikely to find menus serving something you previously thought of as a pet. As an ex-pat American living in the UK, my biggest complaint about food here is actually the lack of variety on most menus. Pub menus tend to all be the same, serving the “traditional” dishes such as fish and chips, sausage and mash and pies.
What you will notice when you look more closely at food here is that the traditional dishes and snacks all reflect the fact that this is a country with a cold and damp climate. Order a salad and you’ll be disappointed by the lack of imagination. British food excels for filling you and warming you on a rainy winter’s day.
Meals out in the UK are expensive. Even food at the local fish and chips shop will seem expensive to a traveler. Your best bets will be local bakeries and grocery stores.
The Local Bakery
Bakeries in the UK aren’t just about cakes and sweets. They usually double as sandwich shops and have a large selection of savoury pastries as well. Of these, there are 2 that you will doubtlessly get to know well if you are travelling on budget:
The first is the sausage roll. This is a rectangular pastry with a flaky crust that is filled with pork sausage meat. Sausage here is not the black peppery stuff that is served for breakfast in America, but has a more subtle and herby flavor to it. These usually will retail for about 1 USD but the price can vary quite a lot depending on the area you are in. Add a pack of crisps, aka potato chips and you have a nice filling lunch.
The second offering the bakery can provide you with is the pasty. This traditional pasty is a stuffing of meat and chunks of potatoes in a short crust pastry case. These were originally lunch food for miners, all the leftovers from last nights meal baked into something portable! These are definitely a meal in their own right! Warm, slightly peppery and very filling! But of course they don’t only come in the traditional variety. It’s quite common to find flavours such as “cheese and onion,” steak, and several others depending on the local traditions. Pasties usually sell for 1.50 USD and up depending on the filling and location.
One thing to be aware of in England is that the taxes differ between food that is eaten in or food that will be taken away. If you want to have a seat in their cafe, be prepared to pay more.
Now I won’t presume to explain all the ins and outs of a grocery store here to you. I’m sure you have them in your own country and know perfectly well what they stock. I will however go through the basics of what you might find different in the UK versus other countries and where to get the best bargains.
The time to hit the supermarket here is right around 6pm. This is when most of them do their daily markdowns on fresh food that is going to go out of date at the end of that day or the next. There will usually be a section on a lower shelf near either the dairy or “cooked meats” aisle where they will stash all the stuff they have marked down.
The important thing to bear in mind here while you are making your selection is the difference between “use by” and “best before” dates. “Use by” means that there are likely to be health consequences if you let the product go much longer than the given date. “Best before” is a date that more represents the freshness of the product and not that it will be spoiled in any way if you leave it beyond this date. As always, use your common sense when purchasing or eating items from this section. Cheese is a favorite of mine, but I steer clear of anything with fish or shellfish in it.
Grocery stores in the UK usually also have a hot food counter. You’ll be able to get a lot of the same stuff as at the bakery such as sausage rolls but they are usually even cheaper here. They frequently do multibuy offers as well. Roast and sometimes fried chickens are usually available and relatively cheap if you are looking for a good hot meal on a budget.
And don’t forget a trip to the deli counter. Buying a few slices of ham or other meat and cheese is a lot cheaper than buying a whole pack that you might not need.
For the cheapest of the cheap, a jar of store-brand peanut butter and a loaf of bread can feed you for a few days for about 3 USD. If you have access to a microwave then soups and the ubiquitous “Pot Noodle” will give you something warm and filling for easily under a dollar.
If you are looking for something sweet, the antiquarian tax structure in the UK declares that while chocolate cookies are a luxury, others and some cakes are not, so you’ll find some sweets distinctly cheaper than others.
Eating cheap in the United Kingdom conclusion
Eating, like everything else in the UK is not cheap compared to many countries, but you can find a way to survive very cheaply as long as you avoid restaurants and pubs. Shop in grocery stores for offers and store brands with the occasional treat from a bakery. Don’t expect everything to be tasty, but you’ll free up funds for other things!
What did you eat in the United Kingdom? What are your cheap food strategies? Let us know below.